KENNEWICK — For the first time, people seek out Gary Middleton to buy his organic fruit.
That's something that has taken Middleton, who farms about 100 acres of organic apples, cherries and blueberries near Eltopia, about 13 years to accomplish, and is among the reasons he plans to continue to stay organic.
The number of organic acres farmed in the state is dropping, from almost 105,000 in 2009 to an estimated 88,100 in 2012, according to a recent study by Washington State University's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.
But the value of the state's organic crops is rising.
It grew by 20 percent from 2010-11, to $284.5 million, the study said. That's the highest value in seven years.
Eastern Washington counties accounted for about 82 percent of that value.
Love and economics
Some of the drop in acreage may be because farmers have realized the amount of work, expense and challenge involved with farming organically, said Middleton of Middleton Organic Orchards.
Organic agriculture is more labor-intensive, requiring hand thinning and hand weeding, he explained. At the peak, when blueberries and cherries are harvested simultaneously, he'll need about 250 people.
Organic prices have to be high enough to cover those increased costs.
"I love being an organic farmer, but it still comes down to economics," he said.
Organic farmers don't use herbicides, and are limited in the pesticides and fertilizers they can use.
Middleton uses compost for fertilizer, which requires more planning when it comes to nutrients. It doesn't deliver as much nitrogen as fast as synthetic products.
But organic agriculture seems a good fit for stewardship of the land, he said. He's noticed that the beneficial insects, including bees and ladybugs, have increased.
Most of the blueberries still were green last week, although a few showed a hint of a bluish-purple hue.
Middleton's irrigation system was going on and off in a 15-minute rotation to cool his apples and blueberries and to suppress sunburn.
The blueberry and cherry harvests will likely start around the end of this month, Middleton said. Blueberries will be color-picked by hand, with the same bushes picked three to four times.
Middleton's goal is to serve an "elite" fresh market, with stores like Costco and Whole Foods carrying his blueberries, he said.
Blueberry harvest can last a month, and cherry harvest can last for about 14 days, he said. His cherries, like others in the area, were hit by frost damage, slashing the expected yield.
After those harvests are complete, Middleton and his crew will move on to the Gala, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples. Frost also might affect those yields, but he said the blueberries seemed to come through the cold -- which dropped as low as 23 degrees -- just fine.
Yields, prices growing
Increasing yields from fruit trees could be a part of why the value of the state's organic crops continue to grow, said David Granatstein, a sustainable agriculture specialist at WSU's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Granatstein completed the WSU study with Elizabeth Kirby, a sustainable agriculture research associate.
It's also possible that some fruit that was sold as conventional because of better prices is now being sold as organic, Granatstein said.
Sales and prices of organic crops continue to increase, suggesting that the market is not saturated, he said.
Grant County continues to lead the state in organic production with about 22,000 acres and a 2011 crop value of $87.8 million, up about 37 percent from the year before.
Benton County has the second most acreage, at about 7,800 in 2012, down about 10 percent from the year before. The 2011 crop value was about $25.8 million, up 17 percent from the previous year.
Franklin County had an estimated 3,200 acres in 2012, a 2 percent drop. Yet value climbed by nearly 37 percent to $18 million.
Organic acres and sales for other area counties were:
• Adams County, relatively unchanged at about 2,500 organic acres in 2012, with value growing by nearly 37 percent to more than $6 million in 2011.
• Walla Walla County, down by 4 percent to about 2,200 acres in 2012, with value up 10 percent to $22 million.
• Yakima County, up 5 percent at about 5,700 acres in 2012, with value increasing 23 percent to $23.4 million in 2011.